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Steam VR - Did Valve Just Conquer VR?


Just about everyone who has a stake in computing has been keeping a close eye on recent developments in virtual reality. From gamers to professionals who create graphics and interfaces for others to use, we’ve been feeling the general shift to feasible mainstream VR.

We’ve seen movement in the mobile space with products such as the Samsung Gear VR, based off a partnership with Oculus.

Of course, so far Oculus is where the smart money was when it came to mainstream, non-mobile home VR. Lots of money, to the tune of $2 Bn from global social media giant Facebook. There have been more entrants in both the VR and AR (augmented reality) space. Microsoft has come along with the Hololens concept and Sony is bringing Project Morpheus to the PS4. So it seems that we’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to different VR and AR solutions.

The VR space is therefore a rapidly heating industry. Although we have yet to see more than announcement and developer kits. So it shouldn’t be surprising that industry giant Valve, of Steam and Source Engine fame, would be interested in being a player at the table.

What is surprising is how hard they’ve come in. No one had any idea that Valve had put this much effort into making it’s own VR system, especially since it has shown such great support for Oculus through Steam and it’s own video games.

The system that Valve demoed to journalists at a recent expo blew many industry people away. The actual hardware on show was produced by HTC, specifically named as the HTC Vive. The two companies had been working together, but what Valve was offering was an open software and hardware standard, to allow anyone to develop a VR product that would be compatible with everything else.

The system shown consisted of three components:

  1. A Headset
  2. Handheld controllers
  3. Laser scanning base stations

The headset is pretty advanced with a 1200x1080 screen for each eye and a refresh rate of 90Hz, eliminating the major cause of motion sickness. The controllers employ triggers and what appears to be the same advanced touchpads found on Valve’s Steam Controller prototypes.

Both of these components are covered in small angled dots that allow very precise motion tracking. The two base stations scan the room so your virtual hands and head are in precise 1:1 position. Furthermore, the scanners know where your real walls are, so you can get up and walk around with a virtual grid appearing to the user when getting to where the real wall is. This is the closest to a real-life holodeck anyone has managed and its a real product.

The main problem right now is that the hardware looks like, well, a prototype. Although the cyberpunk aesthetic is kind of cool. The other problem is that everything is still wired. The final product will be wireless, allow a much more free experience.

If you are in the business of providing professional graphics products there’s no way this isn’t a game changer for the way we look at designing and consuming CG products.